Constitutive relevance & mutual manipulability revisited

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May 2021

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An adequate understanding of the ubiquitous practice of mechanistic explanation requires an account of what (Craver, J Philos Res, 32:3–20, 2007b) termed “constitutive relevance.” Entities or activities are constitutively relevant to a phenomenon when they are parts of the mechanism responsible for that phenomenon. Craver’s mutual manipulability (MM) account extended Woodward’s account of manipulationist counterfactuals to analyze how interlevel experiments establish constitutive relevance. Critics of MM (e.g., Baumgartner and Casini, Philos Sci 84:214–233, 2017; Baumgartner and Gebharter, Brit J Philos Sci 67:731–756, 2016) argue that applying Woodward’s account to this philosophical problem conflates causation and constitution, thus rendering the account incoherent. These criticisms, we argue, arise from failing to distinguish the semantic, epistemic, and metaphysical aspects of the problem of constitutive relevance. In distinguishing these aspects of the problem and responding to these critics accordingly, we amend MM into a refined epistemic criterion, the “matched interlevel experiments” (MIE) account. Further, we explain how this epistemological thesis is grounded in the plausible metaphysical thesis that constitutive relevance is causal betweenness.